talk to Strathclyde University journalism students, 30 April 2013
1. Don’t go drift netting for thousands of fish, go angling for one or two. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with fishing for information from public agencies, but it’s best if you have at least an idea of what you’re looking for - a rough idea of where the bodies might be buried, or where the smoking guns are hidden.
2. Know your topic before you make freedom of information (FoI) requests. Be aware of what’s already in the public domain. Use Google to check what’s online. Look at the information already released, and work out which public agencies might have the information you’re after. Talk to experts, insiders, academics, campaigners, politicians – anyone who might have insight into the issue you are researching.
3. Use investigative journalism. FoI requests are not a substitute for investigatory research work, they are a supplement to it. By far the best FoI requests are those where you know exactly what you are looking for, when an insider or campaigner has tipped you off to the existence of an interesting or embarrassing report or email, and you can ask for it by date, reference number or author.
4. Ask about things that matter to you. I think it’s important to make FoI requests about issues that concern you, bother you, worry you – about things you really care about, are curious about. Scams you suspect, injustices that anger you, pollution that upsets you, societal idiocies you think need to be exposed.